Boca Raton, Fla. — Courtney Lee scored a game-best 29 points Saturday and Tyrone Brazelton added 22 to help lead Western Kentucky University to an 88-78 Sun Belt Conference basketball victory over Florida Atlantic at FAU Arena.
The Hilltoppers end the regular season 24-6, 16-2 in the Sun Belt, sharing the league’s East Division title with South Alabama. They will be the third seed at the conference tournament and play their first game in Mobile March 9 against the winner of an opening round contest between No. 6 seed North Texas and Arkansas State, the 11th seed.
The Owls (14-17, 8-10 SBC) fell for just the third time in the last 10 outings and will be the seventh seed — playing a home game in the first round Wednesday — in the Sun Belt Tournament.
When Brett Royster made the second of two free throws with 14:38 to go, he gave the Owls their final lead, 58-57. Lee answered with a jumper at the other end 22 seconds later as the Toppers would limit FAU to just three field goals over the final 17 minutes to earn the win.
Lee added another basket and was fouled less than a minute later, and although he missed the free throw A.J. Slaughter pulled down the rebound and connected on a three-pointer from the left wing to extend the WKU advantage to 64-58. Slaughter hit another three a minute after two Paul Graham free throws drew the Owls within two, 66-64, to put the Toppers up 71-64.
He would make a career-high 4-of-5 from beyond the arc, finishing with 15 points.
Xavier Perkins made it a one-possession game, 73-70, one last time with 6:16 to go when he converted a pair of foul shots, but it took Lee just nine seconds to respond at the other end of the floor with a baseline jumper. Up 78-73 with four minutes remaining, the Hilltoppers put the game away by scoring eight of the next nine points.
“Florida Atlantic was playing really well coming into the game,” said WKU head coach Darrin Horn. “We knew that the way they push the ball would be a challenge for us, and they did a great job of that in the first half. It wasn’t until we returned the favor and started attacking ourselves on both ends of the floor with around 16 minutes to go that we were able to change the nature of the game.
“I’m really proud of our guys for the way they fought and did what they had to do to get the victory.”
The Toppers shot 50 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes while limiting the Owls to 38.9 percent shooting during that span. That included making 4-of-7 three-pointers while forcing misses on all six FAU attempts from beyond the arc. Both teams shot 46 percent overall, but WKU converted 50 percent from three-point range while holding the Owls to just 26.3 percent from long distance.
The Toppers also won the battle of the boards 36-30 and committed two fewer turnovers than FAU.
Lee recorded five rebounds, and he led WKU with three assists and two steals. Brazelton — who was 6-of-12 from the field, including hitting 4-of-6 three-point tries — chipped in with three boards and a pair of assists. Steffphon Pettigrew led the Hilltoppers with eight rebounds, also scoring six points, while D.J. Magley added eight points and five rebounds.
The Owls had a nine-point lead — their largest of the game — midway through the first half when Graham sank a three-pointer and then followed with a jumper in the lane for a 24-15 edge. WKU scored seven of the next nine points, however, cutting its deficit to four when Lee made both ends of a one-and-one at the free-throw line. Lee’s three-pointer from the right wing with just over seven minutes left made it a two-point game, 31-29, but FAU extended its advantage back to six points keyed by a Graham layup and Derrick Simmons’ three-point play.
Simmons and Carlos Monroe each had eight points at the half, but it was Graham who led the Owls with 11 points before the break.
He would end up scoring a team-best 17 points in 26 minutes off the bench, and Monroe posted 15 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Carderro Nwoji supplied 10 of his 16 points after the break, while Jeff Parmer was credited with eight rebounds and three assists.
Slaughter brought the Toppers to within one point twice in the final four-and-a-half minutes of the opening period, the second time when a put back of his own miss made the score 41-40 with three-and-a-half minutes left. Brazelton followed with a jumper to give WKU its first lead since the opening minute of the contest, then added to the edge with two fouls shots. Slaughter’s three gave the Hilltoppers a 47-44 advantage at the break, although that was almost doubled when Brazelton hit a shot at the buzzer from approximately 80 feet that was initially ruled good by the referees but then determined to be released after the light came on using a video replay.
FAU outshot the Toppers 51.7-43.8 percent in the first 20 minutes, but WKU took advantage of 13 Owl fouls by going 14-of-17 at the free-throw line. Both teams would visit the foul line more than 30 times on the night, and they would also convert better than 74 percent for the contest.